Thinking about extending your kitchen’s capabilities but torn between the idea of a dehydrator or a food smoker? That’s OK, they can be confusing at first, but once you take a closer look – they do two very different, very distinct jobs and it’s easy to tell which is right for your needs.
What’s the difference between a smoker and dehydrator? That’s a long complicated answer but in a nutshell – a smoker improves the taste of products and can be used as part of a process to extend their shelf life. A dehydrator, on the other hand, removes water from food products which can reduce their taste, but which will extend their shelf-life for months.
So, let’s take a look at dehydrators and smokers in more detail. We’ll examine what each device does, the pros and cons of each, the similarities that they have and then decide which is best for your family.
What Is A Dehydrator?
A dehydrator, as the name suggests, is an appliance that is designed to remove water from food products. You can use a dehydrator to remove moisture from meats, fish, spices, herbs, vegetables, and even nuts and seeds.
Dehydration is one of the best-known forms of food preservation and has been practiced for thousands of years (though it’s much easier with modern-era ovens, etc. than it once was).
The length of time it takes to dehydrate any given food tends to depend on the food itself as well as the dehydration temperature used. It can take as little as a few hours for some jobs and potentially much, much longer for others.
The removal of moisture from the food makes it much harder for bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes to grow in the food. Of course, as there is water in the air in most parts of the world – dehydrated foods are best stored in sealed boxes and/or bags and may even require refrigeration or freezing to offer their maximum life span.
One very noticeable thing about dehydrated foods is that they are much smaller, weigh less and tend to have a different color than the non-dried version of the foodstuff.
What Is A Food Smoker?
The oldest form of food preservation known to man (other than cooking, perhaps) is smoking. It’s possible that our caveman ancestors smoked their food over an open fire. The process hasn’t changed much over thousands of years, though the modern smoker is of course, rather more streamlined than a bonfire.
Smokers, in the modern era, can work either by burning charcoal, by burning gas or by electricity. In the case of gas or electric smokers – they will normally burn wood chips or wood chunks to create the smoke.
Smokers can be very simple to operate, particularly if they are electric, or they can be quite complex (charcoal smoking may taste best but it’s quite tricky to master).
The principle of smoking is simple to kill any microbes on the surface of the food. To potentially harm or kill any microbes with the food and to add a smoky taste to the finished product. Smoked food, unliked dehydrated food, tends to resemble the original product but with a smoky outside layer.
How Does A Dehydrator Work?
The original dehydrators of times past would have worked using the sun’s rays, but those days are long gone. Today, your average dehydrator is an electrical appliance that is very simple to use.
You hang the product to be dried in the dehydrator, usually in thin strips, ensuring that it is not touching and then push the button to start.
The Movement Of Air
In order for the dehydrator to effectively remove moisture from the food, heat is used to release the moisture and then an air current is used to remove the moisture in the form of humidity. For this reason, many dehydrators have a fan unit inside which creates an air current.
The current will send hot, humid air to the vents where it will be released and new cooler, drier air is pulled in to ensure that more moisture can be removed from the food in an effective cyclic process.
Depending on the design of the dehydrator, the air current may either flow horizontally or vertically.
A basic dehydrator just dries a single piece of food at a time, but it is possible to buy models that allow you to hand several different types of food.
You may find some have shelves that are fixed and others that allow the shelves to be removed for cleaning and/or to change the ventilation flow inside the dehydrator. The most expensive models may even offer rotating trays to aid the flow of moisture.
Dehydration, generally speaking, takes place at a much lower temperature than cooking does (or, for that matter, than smoking does). You’ll find that most dehydrators are kept to a temperature range of 90 degrees Fahrenheit to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can dehydrate pretty much any food substance (though not all foods will have much taste at the end of the process). Meat, fish, cereal, fruit, nuts, bread, vegetables, etc. can all be passed through a dehydrator.
A dehydrator prepares food for long-term storage. Many of the items that pass through it come out dry and leathery-looking in comparison to their original state. Some foods will lose flavor, but most will come out with a stronger more-defined taste.
It’s also worth noting that both gardeners and hobbyists have been known to use a dehydrator to further their arts. Clay and seeds can both benefit from losing moisture at times.
How Does A Food Smoker Work?
A food smoker works as smoking food always has, it burns fuel (usually wood and/or charcoal) to produce smoke. The food is placed in the smoke for a period of time (which varies depending on the foodstuff, the size of the individual pieces of food and the temperature of the smoker).
There are gas, electric and charcoal versions and while the electric smokers function in much the same way as a dehydrator (push buttons, set dials) the others may require rather more effort to set up and maintain during the cooking process.
The Movement Of Air
The flow of air is an essential component to the way that the smoking process works, the smoke must circulate efficiently to ensure the food is smoked and the air must be replaced on a regular basis in order to draw more smoke into the smoking chamber.
With electric smokers, this process is usually automated. However, on other models of smokers, the user will be in charge of controlling the vents and the door of the smoker in order to create the right airflow. This can be a tricky thing to learn and novice smokers are usually best served with an electric smoker.
If you have an electric smoker, it may come with inbuilt functionality such as a timer setting, automatic shutoff (if there are any issues) and, of course, a temperature control. Some electric smokers also allow for a “cool smoking” setting which mimics the functionality of a dehydrator.
Non-electric models, however, are usually fully manual and it is up to the user to ensure that they are monitored and maintained throughout the cooking cycle. This can mean that if you’re looking for ease-of-use that an electric smoker is the best choice for your cooking processes. It is very difficult to mimic a dehydrator with non-electric models.
Smoking food is all about giving it a great taste. It takes place in a faster time period than dehydration and at a higher temperature. The smokier the taste you want, the more smoke you want in the device during the cooking process.
There will normally be a removable drip tray in a smoking unit which allows you to quickly clean the product once you’ve finished using it.
How much food you can prepare in a smoker is really down to your budgetary constraints, you can buy a smoker large enough to feed everyone in a restaurant if you want to. However, while you can mix and match foods in the smoker – you can only use one type of smoke at a time.
Smokers have a single purpose, unlike dehydrators, and are generally only used for cooking.
What Are Dehydrators Good At?
OK, so now that we’ve taken a look at what a dehydrator is let’s examine what it’s good at:
- Increases the shelf life of your food – removing moisture destroys harmful microbes and prevents them from returning
- Helps you save money – the longer your food lasts, the less you throw away, the less you spend
- Helps you save space – a dehydrator takes up relatively little space compared to traditional food drying methods and dried food takes up less space than the food did before drying
- Can help to intensify sweetness – dehydrated fruit ends up with a higher concentration of sugars, this makes it sweeter to the taste
- Handy snacks for outdoor use – dehydrated foods such as jerky or trail mix bars are perfect for putting in your pockets for a long camping trip
- Speeding up the drying process – you could dry food in the sunlight, but it takes forever
- No chemicals involved – you’re just taking water out of dehydrated food, you’re not putting anything else in
What Are Food Smokers Good At?
Now, let’s turn to smokers and what they are good at:
- Ease of use – well, technically, electric smokers are very easy to use a charcoal smoker can be much harder to get to grips with. All you need to do is switch it on, set it and sit back and wait for tasty food
- Boosts the flavor of food – smoked food is like a stronger, more intense version of the original food with a hint of smoke this is in stark contrast dehydrating where tastes often get much weaker
- Will double as a BBQ grill – buy the right model and you’ll get a great BBQ grill as part of the smoker and it’s good at it too
- Small footprint – a smoker, given the cooking potential, tends to have a reasonable footprint which doesn’t take up too much space
- Large volumes of food produced – you can easily feed a family with even the smallest of smokers, with a large smoker the sky’s the limit as to the numbers you can feed
- Kills bacteria – the bacteria on the surface of smoked food will die as will many bacteria inside the food. However, this doesn’t mean that smoked food can be left for hours without being eaten
- Durable – most smokers will last for years and non-electric smokers of a decent quality ought to last a lifetime
What Are The Weak Points Of Dehydrators?
That’s not to say that dehydrators are perfect, they have their weaknesses too:
- It is time-consuming – you have to prepare foods to be dehydrated (such as vegetables while need blanching and cooling, first) and ideally, you should grow your own food for the best results
- Loss of vitamins – dehydrated food tends to lose a lot of the vitamins as the moisture is withdrawn
- It’s not that tasty – we’ve touched on this, but dehydrated foods often lose a lot of their flavor along with the water content
- They’re not cost-efficient – a dehydrator is something of an electricity hog and you’ll be paying for that dried food when the utility bills arrive
- They’re heavy – a dehydrator isn’t the lightest of kitchen toys and that means you tend to set it up and then leave it in place, which makes them awkward for use in small kitchens
What Are The Weak Points Of Food Smokers?
Smokers aren’t perfect, either and have a number of drawbacks too:
- The features can be complicated – a basic smoker is very easy to operate but a top of the range electric model can often come with a handbook as thick as the one with your computer. Charcoal models are notoriously hard to master.
- You may have to cook the food first – smoking can dry out the food if you smoke it too long, so some items may need to be cooked and then smoked
- It might be carcinogenic – the jury is out on this but there is some indication that chemicals that appear in smoke may be carcinogenic, however, how much of them you might need to consume to get cancer is definitely up for debate and it is possible that even if you smoked every meal you ever ate, it wouldn’t be enough
- Lack of temperature controls – electric models tend to be good for this but charcoal models are very difficult to control the temperature of
Food Smoker Vs Dehydrator: What Do They Have In Common?
The two devices do have some things in common too:
- They can both aid with food preservation. However, it’s worth stressing that smoking really needs to be paired with curing to be an effective preservative. Otherwise, it only extends the shelf-life of food marginally whereas dehydrating can add months to the life of items of food (as long as they are stored properly)
- They’re both compact. Well, technically, they both can be compact. The usual family-sized models have fairly small footprints in the kitchen, but you can buy very large versions of either device
- Electric versions offer additional features. The electric dehydrators and smokers are very easy to work with and can often provide additional functionality (which may justify the space they take up)
Food Smoker Vs Dehydrator: Which One Is Best?
This is a bit like taking an apple and an orange and then asking, “Which is best?” They are both different devices and neither is better than the other at what they are designed for.
We’d say if the taste of the finished product is what’s most important – smokers are the best choice. There’s nothing quite like the taste of home-smoked bacon or home-smoked chicken. The whole family will be delighted to get involved in eating.
However, if the preservation of food products is what you’re looking for – dehydrators are the best choice. Your food can last months extra when it’s been dried effectively and while it does lose some taste, it’s much better than creating additional volumes of food waste.
We also acknowledge that dehydrated food is probably safer for human consumption than smoked food. While there is a loss of some nutrients from dehydrated food, the potential carcinogens in smokers are a greater concern.
Food Smoker Vs Dehydrator: What’s The Difference? As you can see, it’s not an easy question to answer but as we said at the start – food smokers improve the flavor of food and when combined with curing they can also help extend the life of that food.
Whereas a dehydrator removes moisture from the food and while this may reduce the taste of that foodstuff, it will also extend its shelf life.
Neither is “better” than the other, they simply have different uses and you should choose the one that best suits your needs.
Scot has loved smoking food in his free time for the last few years. Each major holiday or off-weekend, Scot spends days testing and prepping new recipes for perfection.